Richard Pryor may have been the most unlikely star in Hollywood history. Raised in his family’s brothels in the red-light district of Peoria, Illinois, he grew up with a burning sense of being an outsider to privilege.
He took to the stage, originally, to escape the hard-bitten realities of his childhood, but later he came to a reverberating discovery: that by exploring the darker corners of his experience, he could make stand-up comedy as exhilarating and heart-rending as the life he’d known. He carried that trembling vitality into a movie career whose high notes—Blazing Saddles, the buddy comedies with Gene Wilder, Blue Collar—flowed directly out of his spirit of creative improvisation.
The major studios considered him dangerous; audiences felt plugged directly into the socket of life. Comedy in America took on a sharper edge.
Up From Peoria (1940-1962)
Born on December 1, 1940, Richard Pryor spent his formative years in Peoria, growing up under the stern tutelage of his grandmother Marie, whom he called “Mama.” Marie was the center of the Pryor family: the cook who brought the family together with her pungent soul food, and the madam who presided over a number of brothels with the help of Richard’s father, uncle and aunt.
Physically and otherwise, she was immovable: a boulder of a woman who didn’t hesitate to use her strong hands or her straight razor to keep her brothels running smoothly. Most of the time, though, she didn’t have to whip anyone into shape. She simply said — referring to her size-twelve shoes — “I’ll put my twelves up in your ass,” and the trouble went away.
She ran Richard like she ran her brothels, with a stiff sense of right and wrong and an equally stiff sense of possessiveness. Sometimes she hurt Richard physically, whipping him with birch switches or slamming him with an iron skillet. But she also gave him a sense of dignity, a bottom-dog wisdom. “Son, one thing a white man can’t take from you,” she told him often, “is the knowledge”: the knowledge of who you are, which you keep separate from how other people look at you.
For all her strength. Marie couldn’t protect her grandson from the world her livelihood plunged him into. Despite his later comic riffs on “peeking through the keyhole,” growing up in brothels unsettled the young Richard. Screams would wake him at night, and he’d have no idea where they were coming from. Were his mother and father at each other’s throats again? Was one of his many “aunts” pleasuring a paying customer? Or was it Mama, enforcing the discipline of the house with her straight razor?
It was a chaos Richard struggled to handle. Part of him simply absorbed the brutal lessons of “the life” — that prostitutes were just animals and that pimps had to keep their feet on the back of their necks; that feelings were nonsense and money was all. But another part of him rebelled. There had to be another world — maybe outside the red-light district or his family — where people treated one another with kindness and an oversized shoe wasn’t always poised to go up in your business.
His comedy became his refuge. He spoke of the stage as he would speak of a lover: “It’s the only thing in my life that’s never hurt me, that’s given me fulfillment, and let me have my dignity. Never belittled me.” The only thing.
Apprentice Moves (1962-1966)
Throughout his teens, Pryor had a typical experience for a black child growing into a black man in Peoria. He left school in ninth grade; took a series of menial jobs (folding cowhides, shining shoes) that permanently soured him on manual labor; entered the Army but clashed with his superiors there, getting bounced from the service after sixteen months. Yet he was saved from the path marked out for his friends — “work, pension, die,” he called it — by his love of the stage and his willingness to risk all for the life of an entertainer.
In 1962, he left Peoria for a brief tour of the chitlin circuit, working as an emcee supporting various floor shows, then landed the following year in New York City, nerves jangling and eyes wide.
New York City offered Pryor a chance to reinvent himself. No one in New York knew his family and what they did for a living, and he wasn’t about to tell them. His press bio claimed that he not only graduated from high school but double-lettered on the football and basketball teams. He was less Richard Pryor, bastard out of Peoria, and more like the second coming of Bill Cosby, the athletic college graduate who was just then making a splash with his affable, conversational approach to comedy.
Yet even when Pryor modeled himself after Cosby, he couldn’t hide his singularity as a comedian. He was always more experimental in his technique, drawn to improv games or the sort of character-driven sketches or jazzy riffs in which the spirit of improv could more easily take flight. And whereas Cosby was the soul of composure, Pryor impersonated the “cool guy” who never failed to blow his cool. He scored on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Merv Griffin Show with hyperkinetic, high-concept impressions — of the first man to step foot on the sun, of a Japanese robot that performed karate, even of the entire “history of mankind.”
Split at the Root (1967-1970)
By 1968, Pryor was living something of a double life: there was Richie Pryor, TV’s lovable comic, and then there was Richard Pryor, “Super Nigger” behind the mask. He dreamt of himself as a saboteur who would suckerpunch America in the gut when it expected to be tickled in the ribs. He felt the appeal of Black Power, befriending Black Panthers and producing the guerilla film Uncle Tom’s Fables partly as a result. And he tested out the counterculture, living with his new wife Shelley in Laurel Canyon, home of the folk explosion, and experimenting with drugs and mysticism.
It was a dangerous sort of double life, and Pryor had the psychic scars to prove it. The war within had first come to a head on September 15, 1967, when Pryor was launching a run at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Pryor wandered onto the stage and saw Dean Martin looking straight at him. He saw the rest of the sold-out crowd looking at him too, waiting for that first laugh. He asked himself “Who’re they looking at, Rich?” and realized that he didn’t know the answer; he was having a nervous breakdown. He asked the audience “What the fuck am I doing here?”, then walked off the stage, climbed into his ’65 Mustang, and drove straight home to LA.
Pryor’s first album for Dove Records (Richard Pryor) was recorded not long after his Aladdin breakdown, which for all its confusions also opened onto a period of creative breakthrough. In sketches like “T.V. Panel” and “Prison Play,” Pryor extended himself in multi-character playlets that offered sharp commentary on race, sex and the media. Even more importantly, he started revisiting his childhood with his eyes open to the hard edges of its humor. Sketches like “Hank’s Place” and “Hippy Dippys” — not released on his first album but recorded around the same time — were gems of ghetto portraiture, loving and ironic, freewheeling and exact.
Pryor was spending more time in black circles, with friends like Paul Mooney and at clubs like Maverick’s Flat in LA’s Crenshaw district. And like many others swept in the force field of Black Power, Pryor was seeking to be reborn. He was throwing off the stigmas of his past, the sort that had kept him from admitting onstage that “I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of whorehouses.”
Pryor was unlocking the doors of his memory, and character after character was flying out — the badass Jesse, the sassy Irma, the smooth-talking Coldblood, the stuttering Torsey. He was rediscovering, in his past, “a beautiful place with beautiful people,” where “everybody was different, everybody was individual”. The album “Craps” (After Hours) was the result.
A Berkeley Interlude (1971)
Despite the artistic breakthrough of Craps, Pryor’s life was falling apart in early 1971. His marriage to Shelley had dissolved, and only a handful of clubs across the country were willing to book his new obscenity-laced act; his cocaine habit was siphoning off what remained of his cash flow.
He left Hollywood for Berkeley, where he didn’t have to worry about being too extreme in his views or his language. Berkeley was one of the few cities in America where black and white radicals both felt like enemies of the state — the local Black Panthers because they’d been targeted by the FBI, the local white activists because then-Governor Ronald Reagan had declared martial law in order to suppress their protests.
Berkeley gave Pryor license to experiment artistically, and one thing he chose to be was unfunny. He wrote stream-of-consciousness poetry, created sound collages, and hosted a radio program where he raged bitterly at those who had put down the Attica prison uprising. “I felt free,” he said of his time in the Bay Area, “like I had just come out of a dungeon I had been in for years.”
King of the Scene Stealers (1972-1974)
Pryor’s Berkeley asylum didn’t last long. The allure of Hollywood ran deep, and when Motown’s Berry Gordy offered him a small role in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, he leapt at the chance.
The next few years were magical ones for his creativity: from 1972 to 1975, it seemed as if Pryor enchanted everything he touched, lending it a mysterious resonance or an askew ingenuity. He co-wrote Blazing Saddles, giving his relatively well-behaved Jewish collaborators the license to spiel freely about race in America. The end product was a classic satire of American westerns and a film that inspired postmodern parodies from Airplane to The Simpsons.
He co-wrote and starred in The Mack, drawing on his own experience of “the life” to give the film an unexpected, trembling depth, and helped create the source-text of hip-hop’s fascination with “pimps” and “hos.” And he worked with Lily Tomlin on her TV specials, finding in her a true kindred spirit — an artist who brought working-class characters to life with an exquisite ear for the rhythms of their speech, and without worrying about labels like “comedy” or “drama.”
Meanwhile Pryor’s recording career was taking off on the strength of That Nigger’s Crazy (1974), an album that has supplied the creative DNA for several generations of stand-up comics in the four decades since its release. The title was unapologetic, and so was the comedy on the album itself. It dramatized the lengths blacks took to avoid being shot by cops; it showed a comic willing to report his sheepish inner dialogue after a too-quick ejaculation.
With his wino-and-junkie routine, too, Pryor brought a new tonal complexity to stand-up . Drunks had long been fixtures of comedy — but junkies? They were the stuff of TV-news horror stories and gut-wrenching social dramas like Panic in Needle Park. They were the urban nightmare incarnate. Not for Pryor: his wino-and-junkie routine was simultaneously tender, unblinking, and hilarious. “My father called me a dog,” the junkie says, drawing in our pity. Then he escapes from it: “He said he didn’t want to see me in the vicinity — just because I stole his television.” No one was more shocked than Pryor himself when That Nigger’s Crazy won a Grammy for best comedy album.
The Funniest Man on the Planet (1975-1978)
Pryor’s Grammy for That Nigger’s Crazy was the first of five. On the Grammy-winning albums …Is It Something I Said? (1975) and Bicentennial Nigger (1976), he delivered on the promise of That Nigger’s Crazy and then some. The cover of Bicentennial Nigger captured his stand-up’s political challenge: it depicted Pryor in ten incarnations — as policeman, farmer, hustler, boxer, reverend, slave and so on — and all the incarnations were bound together in leg irons and chains, themselves secured by Uncle Sam.
Arguably there’s no more unnerving track on a “comedy” record than the title cut of Bicentennial Nigger, where a black old-timer recounts the horrors visited upon black Americans —the Middle Passage, the separation of families under slavery — as if they were all a hilarious joke, with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” surging in the background.
Yet while Pryor’s comedy became more politically cutting, it also became, elsewhere, more warm and inviting. His mid-’70s albums gave off the aura of being utterly uncompromising at the same time that they pulled in a crossover audience with characters like the snuff-dipping, Mississippi-born Mudbone, Pryor’s great comic creation from this period. Mudbone is the voice of slave and peasant wisdom, so ancient that he remembers “back when there were no years, they just called it ‘hard times’.” He has Uncle Remus’s crackerbarrel charm, but — unlike Uncle Remus — he revels in the tricks he plays on his white bosses, the lovers who betray him, and the black gamblers who size him up as an easy mark.
With Mudbone, there was nothing not to like, which may explain why Pryor himself tired of the character a few years later, well before his audience did. At the first taping session for Live on the Sunset Strip in 1981, an audience member shouts “Mudbone! Mudbone!” during a slow, soul-searching moment for Pryor onstage. The comedian has a quick reply: “Fuck. You.” He had become the sort of performer who didn’t need to milk a character just for laughs.
A Crossover Sensation (1979-1985)
In 1975, when seeking to recruit Pryor for the just-launched Saturday Night Live, producer Lorne Michaels dubbed Pryor “the funniest person on the planet.” By the early-’80s, a shocking number of people agreed with the assessment: Pryor rocketed to the top of Hollywood through the propulsive force of his comic imagination, defying the conventional prejudice against black leads and becoming perhaps the most unlikely star that the studio system had yet produced.
His 1979 stand-up film Richard Pryor Live in Concert, the first film of its kind, earned an astonishing $20 million at the box office. He improvised his way from a cameo part to a starring role in Silver Streak, and not only created one of the biggest hits of 1976 but also launched, with his co-star Gene Wilder, the formula of the interracial buddy comedy in Hollywood. Stir Crazy, the follow-up to Silver Streak, became the third-largest moneymaker of 1981 and the second-most successful comedy in Hollywood history to that date.
The great director Billy Wilder quipped the following year that studio executives had a formula for making hit movies: they “approach it very scientifically — computer projections, marketing research, audience profiles — and they always come up with the same answer: Get Richard Pryor.”
How did the skinny, sharp-elbowed kid from Peoria do it? In no small part, the secret to Pryor’s success was that he delved into his own psyche as never before. He focused on the parts of himself that were most wounded, the most destructive of himself and others, the most loathing of himself and others, and not only did he refuse to blink: he lingered. And in reliving the storm that raged within himself, he managed to bring irony to it. He drew out its folly as well as its mad strength.
Take the film Live in Concert, one of Pryor’s greatest achievements as an artist. The concert documentary was filmed, in December 1978, after some of the most turbulent months of Pryor’s turbulent life. In the previous year and a half, he had publicly battled network censors over his short-lived TV show; had rattled Hollywood when, at at a gay rights benefit, he ended his show by telling the audience “you Hollywood faggots can kiss my rich, happy black ass”; and had, at a New Year’s Eve party at his house, unloaded a gun into a Mercedes-Benz that had previously contained his wife and her friends.
He was feeling his mortality and his fragility too. He had suffered a heart attack the year before. And just weeks before the filming of Live in Concert, his beloved grandmother Marie had died in Peoria.
In performance, he turned his struggles to account, enlivening all the characters — his grandmother, his Mercedes-Benz, his heart, animals ranging from deer and horses to monkeys and dogs — who had starred in his ongoing theater of the absurd. With a seemingly effortless fluidity, he often played himself and another character at the same time, his body stretching to encase, say, his grandmother and the little child he once was. Onstage he would be lashing himself and on the receiving end of blows, playing both perpetrator and victim — and never losing touch with the complexity of each role.
Film critics, the most disabused of viewers, were startled by the hilarity of his comedy and by its moral nuance. “The only great poet satirist among our comics” raved The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: “Working entirely without props, gimmicks, or excuses, he creates a world so intensely realized and richly detailed that it puts most million-dollar blockbusters to shame.”
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Pryor relished his success — “I look on it all with a bit of awe,” he said — but could not take it in. The death of his grandmother had shattered his sense of himself, and he fell into a profound depression. His world contracted into a black hole dominated by his freebase pipe, his paranoia, and his loneliness.
On June 9, 1980, Pryor doused himself with a bottle of 151 proof rum and set himself on fire — not by accident, as he first claimed, but by choice. He had lost the will to live. Ironically, setting himself on fire revived it. The flames engulfed his hair, his neck and his upper body, and he ran into the street for help. “I wanted to live, and I fought for my life, and it was hard,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything worse than being burned as bad as I was.” Then he added, significantly, “I doubt that there’s any comparable pain, other than loneliness.”
Live on the Sunset Strip was an act of artistic resurrection, Pryor summoning the strength to return to the stage after losing his hold on life. The struggle was not easily won: Pryor doubted his material and wondered what the fire had burned out of him. “Maybe I ain’t funny anymore,” he suggested on the first night of taping at the Hollywood Palladium, after his nerves had led him to switch around the order of his sketches and thrown off his rhythm. “Maybe I ain’t angry at nothing for real in my heart….Motherfuckers want to kill yourselves, that’s your business. Just don’t do it on my porch.”
The note of resignation was new. This wasn’t the cunning detachment of an artist from his material; it was just detachment plain and simple.
The following night, Pryor donned his devil-red suit for a second time — and saved the film by committing to it fully. He portrayed the revelatory power of his trip to Kenya, during which the word “nigger” dropped away from his vocabulary. He delivered one of the most indelible accounts of addiction, bringing his crack pipe to life and letting it speak with a wheedling conviction: “Don’t answer the phone. We have smoking to do.” And he narrated his recovery from third-degree burns with an eye for its comedy, turning the story of a simple sponge bath into a parable about pride coming before a fall.
He also skirted the facts behind the fire — a massaging of the truth that seems to have disturbed him. “I was in a great depression before the reviews [of Live on the Sunset Strip] came out. I didn’t like the film. I didn’t like myself,” he said. A few years later, in his semi-autobiographical film JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, he made his self-immolation the dramatic center of the film and played it as a moment of suicidal panic.
Pryor had a strong allergy to all kinds of untruth, whether it took the form of euphemism, propaganda or self-censorship, and was particularly sensitive to his own moments of personal untruth. He recognized that the struggle to be honest with oneself was a never-ending battle in which the better angels of our nature didn’t always prevail.
Yet he tried, even if it meant biting the hand that fed him. Throughout the 1980s, he apologized insistently for the films he made, some of which are best forgotten (Moving, Critical Condition), others of which hold up surprisingly well if not compared to his earlier work (Brewster’s Millions, Some Kind of Hero). He knew that any world where Superman III and The Toy (box-office receipts of $60 million and $47 million) topped Live on the Sunset Strip and Richard Pryor… Here and Now ($36 million and $16 million) was not quick to face up to its harder truths.
A Lower Profile (1986-2005)
In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he kept an exceedingly low profile over the last decades of his life. One of the greatest of physical comedians had been robbed of his main instrument onstage, his body, and he preferred to live in seclusion rather than have his admirers compare him to the person and performer he had been. He asked Jennifer Lee, who had been at his side during the triumphant period of Live in Concert, to return to him, and she did: they were remarried, and she served as his caretaker for the last decade of his life.
Meanwhile the MS took its remorseless course. On December 10, 2005, Pryor died of a heart attack at age 65. He had been married seven times to five different women, fathered six children, and utterly transformed the ground-rules for comedy in America.
The Age of Pryor in Retrospect
During his creative efflorescence — the years from 1974 to 1982 that, in comedy terms, were the Age of Pryor — he had embodied an electric state of possibility. He had started his life on the fringes, in a no-name Midwestern brothel, then had managed to pull the center of American culture toward him until it was hard to tell the center from the fringe anymore. By 1980, anyone who was even just a little bit hip spoke snatches of Pryor-ese, trying on the bottom-dog mask of Mudbone (“The point I’m trying to make is…there is no point to be made”) or the see-through macho act of Stir Crazy’s Harry Monroe (“We bad!”). Pryor’s comedy seduced them to experiment with becoming somebody else.
In this way they were taking after Pryor himself, who was in love with human possibility, devoted to playing new role after new role.
When asked by Barbara Walters, in 1980, if he saw the world in terms of black people and white people, the comedian who had alerted American culture to the infrared language of race, its hidden pulsing through our common life, came back with a firm ‘no’.
“I see people,” he said searchingly, “as the nucleus of a great idea that hasn’t come to be yet.”